Protein bars can appear to be the best of all worlds. They taste like a candy bar while seemingly supplying needed protein between meals or before vigorous exercise. Yet the question remains; are these modern protein bars really a nutritious snack, or just empty calories disguised as nutrition?
Well, the answer isn’t so clear-cut. To pick a good protein bar, you need to look past the company’s marketing (because they are all advertised as healthy), and really look at the ingredient list. There are some pretty toxic ingredients in protein options, but there are some better options as well. I’m going to start with the bad, and then I’ll get to the good stuff!
Harmful Ingredients in Protein Bars:
Protein isolates, Concentrates or Hydrolyzed Protein:
These proteins are all heavily processed, often to remove the fat, the lactose or to break down the protein. In the process, the protein often becomes denatured. This means the protein structure has been compromised, making it unusable to your body. So while the label might read 20 grams of protein, only a small portion of the protein may actually be available for your body. And what is left is so synthetic that it can actually lead to inflammation and weight gain.
These are oils like sunflower oil, safflower oil and canola oil. The problem with vegetable oils in protein bars is that vegetable oils are heat sensitive. In order to take these different ingredients and meld them into a bar, high heat must be used. This high heat can burn vegetable oils, making them toxic to the body
Puffed Crisps, Wheat, Rice, etc:
If brown rice is a healthy staple, then puffed rice should be no different, right? Actually, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The puffing process subjects the grain to extremely high heats which depletes them of most of most of their nutrients. According to The Weston A. Price Foundation, an experiment with rats showed that rats who ate a diet exclusively of puffed wheat died sooner than rats who didn’t eat anything at all, as well as rats who ate a diet of nothing but sugar. This suggests that the puffing process can turn food toxic.
Fake Sugars and Sugar Alcohols:
Some of the most popular protein bars are of the low-carb variety. While it may seem like a tasty dream to have a candy-like bar with no sugar and carbohydrates, buyer should beware. These bars are almost always filled with synthetic sugars that cause inflammation, toxicity and weight gain. Some examples of fake sugars are malitol, sucralose, glycerol, erythritol and monk fruit extract (commercial monk fruit extract is usually heavily processed., though it is a step up from the other fake sweeteners)
But you knew that already, right?
Ingredients to Look for in Protein Bars:
Nuts and Nut Butters:
There are a few protein bars on the market made exclusively from fruits and nuts. If you are going to eat a protein bar, these are some of my favorite options. These bars made out of real foods that your body can easily recognize. The nuts provide a good source of fat which can help the food bar keep you fuller for longer. They are also full of vitamins, minerals as well as some protein.
Dried fruit, while still being somewhat high-glycemic (meaning it creates a fast spike in blood sugar levels), it is still a better option than added sweeteners or fake sugars. It is a real food that your body can use. Keep in mind though that dried fruit still has sugar and many of these bars with dried fruit have over 20 grams of sugar. Yet, this is a better option than added sugars.
Please note that I specified raw honey. Raw honey hasn’t been processed and contains many of the vitamins, minerals and enzymes found in honey’s natural state. Most bars that I’m aware of containing raw honey are found in the refrigerated section due to their perishable nature. Honey is still sugar, however it is lower-glycemic. Raw honey is full of nutrients that are usually destroyed during processing. Therefore, the sugar isn’t just empty calories.
Pure Protein Powders:
Look for labels with hemp, whey, egg or pea protein. These protein powders are better than the protein concentrates or isolates I previously mentioned. These protein sources are less processed and will be more usable by the body.
Cold Processed Ingredients:
If you’ve learned anything up to this point, it should be that heat is not your friend when designing a good protein bar. Cold processing allows for as much of the original nutrients of the protein to be retained as possible. That way, what you see on the food label will much more likely be reflected in the bar itself.
Here is a list of brands that have more of these types of ingredients:
Please note that many of these options can only be found online.
Raw Power Organic Food Bar
Pure Power Protein Bar
Protein bars can never take the place of real whole foods. They are treats, meant to be enjoyed on an occasional basis. They are good to grab when you are on the go and would otherwise go hungry or when you need some extra energy. So enjoy protein bars, but don’t let them became a major component of your diet.